Mythymna remains one of my favourite places in the world, and we sailed around from Mytilene and in my memory we never touched an oar, which may be an old man’s fondness for the place that might be belied by a cursing oarsman, but let’s imagine that day; the pure blue of the sea and the lighter sky, the looming mass of Asia visible through the sea haze, the mountains of north Lesvos rising, mighty, jagged spikes, and then, suddenly, after you round the northern peninsula of the island, you see beaches; first the hot springs at Euthalou, called ‘Thermi’ like every other hot spring in Greece, and then you see the headland and the mighty fortress high above, and you think, ‘How in the names of all the Gods to Akilles ever take that thing?’
The fortress towers over the town, and it has heavy stone walls that date back a thousand years. The town itself runs from the acropolis all the way down to the sea, with walls and towers that cover a dozen stone jetties and twenty ship sheds. The town has two beaches, like any good harbour town, so that ships can land in almost nay wind on one of the two, and row off too.
The town is mostly whitewashed mud-brick houses on stone foundations, with pretty red-tile roofs and paint; even the poorer Mythymnans tend to paint their houses like temples, with bands of bright red and even expensive lapis blue. The inner harbour and breakwater on the point date back to the time of the Trojan War, and that’s where the fishing boats lie up during the winter. There are twenty or more warehouses and stades of drying racks for salt fish. The smell of fish is everywhere, but the position of the town on a northern promontory gives it the cleanest, most frequent breezes in Greece.
I landed on the west side of the point. I remember the landing well, because, perhaps as a result of four days of bad news and tension, I was determined to look flashy on landing, so, against Damon’s advice, I took the helm myself, brought her in close to the beach where the water is still good and deep, and put the oars over hard to starboard while my oarsmen bit into the water on the starboard side, and my sailors, at a motion, dropped the mainsail.
We went from full sail to a near stop in five ship’s lengths, pivoted end for end so fast that we took on water through the lower oar-holes, and came to rest with the stern perhaps a quarter of a stadion from the beach.
I grinned like a fool, because it was flashy and had taken perfect timing, and we’d pulled it off. The oars gave three strokes backwards and the stern rode up the beach and we were in, neat as neat.
‘Wasn’t that pretty?’ I demanded of Damon.
Nestor smiled. ‘Pretty is as pretty does, sir,’ he said. ‘An’ we could had taken a minute longer and no danger to ship or crew.’
I could tell Damon agreed.
I grinned, and Poseidenos grinned back from his oar. ‘But it was good fun to do,’ I said. ‘And it shows how good our training is.’
Poseidenos was grinning. ‘I’ll make a pretty story,’ he agreed.
Damon was still looking out to sea. ‘But…’
I realized that Damon was not happy and I changed my tone. I try not to be a despicable tyrant. ‘Speak up,’ I said. ‘I won’t bite.’
He smiled. ‘One mistake by an oarsman; or the boys brailing up the sail… and we’re bow first into the beach at cruising speed. Broken ram and hurt men.’
He had a point. And because I was no longer in a foul mood, I didn’t have to be angry at being gainsaid. This is another aspect of anger that I note; in it’s absence, you deal with the world in a completely different way.
‘Truth in what you say,’ I said. I could see my wife coming down to the beach. She wore a light saffron chiton in the Ionian way, with glittering golden pins that I could see catch the sun a hundred paces away. She was walking down the long stone path from the fortress, so she was above me, with a dozen other women in attendance and as many men, one in armour. She had a broad-brimmed straw hat and a gauzy veil over her shoulders, so that her face was covered; I’d have known her anywhere just by her shoulders and the straightness of her back.
As she came closer, I could see that she carried a magnificent silver hydria, the big water-carrying vessel they used in temples, and behind her were women with wine amphorae.
Briseis was intending to welcome me in style, with a religious ceremony.
I shrugged into my best chiton, with the embroidered ravens, just in time to note that the shoulder of my bronze thorakes had torn it.
‘Aten, I need my armour,’ I called out, and he was there, laying it on the deck, bless him. I remember when he was too scared to get the halves closed on my breast and back, and now he put it on while chattering at me, put the pins in and snapped greaves on my legs while my oarsmen chattered their way down the twin planks over the stern.
So rather than first, I was nearly the last man ashore. Nearly, because Styges appeared in his armour, and by Ares, he had all the marines turned out, so that we came down the planks like gods in bronze, and he formed them on the beach.
Briseis came forward. She is a woman of several personas; this was not Briseis my wife, but Briseis the priestess, and she came forward at the head of her women, and she poured water and then wine over my shield and the other women did the same for the marines. And then breis smiled at Aten, and he was handed a silver kylix brim full of dark red wine.
‘Welcome home,’ Briseis said.
She gave me the cup to drink, and I poured a libation on the sand and took a sip and passed it to Styges, who raised it to Briseis, poured a libation, and handed it to Kassandros, who happened to be next in line. And then to Zephyrides and then to Leander and so on, until Akilles poured a little drop in the san and drank the rest off.
Most of the oarsmen had lingered, and all the sailors. They’d more than lingered; they’d formed in four ranks on the beach. They weren’t neat ranks, like soldiers, but they were there, without orders.
I smiled. ‘I hope you have a lot of wine,’ I said very softly.
One of the things I loved best in Briseis was her ability to change directions like a dolphin. She had come to greet me, but now, without a pause of a sign that she’d ever planned anything else, she began to serve all the sailors, and when she and her women had passed them, they were presented a problem. The sailors all had shields; many were pelte, or small rimless aspides, but they had something.
The oarsmen, on the other hand, had only their oars.
One of Briseis women was a dark-haired local girl, perhaps thirteen years old. I didn’t know here, but I guessed she was from one of Briseis’s friend’s families. She was smart, that young woman; she took her pitcher and blessed the man’s oar. Of course it was old Poseidenos, first in the line, and he, who had seen fifty fights and knew more curses and foul stories than any man I know, blushed with pleasure to g=have a fine lady give him the ‘home’ blessing.
And the women continued along the ranks, blessing the oars. Everyone does it now, and I’ve heard men claim that the Athenians invented the blessing of oars after Salamis, but I think it was Briseis, and young Cleo, of Mythymna, a girl who could think on her feet.
It took a while. It was time well spent. There was a little ribaldry, and men shifted in their places, but it wasn’t the sort of ceremony that men resent. It was more of the sort of moment that builds a team, that gives spirit.
Wars are won in odd moments–decisions about moving food, or about locating a well, or scouting a camp. I won’t claim we won the Ionian war on the beach of Mythymna.
But by the gods, I felt our luck change.
# # #
We spent almost a week in Mythymna. There was a local sea-festival, with a feast and sacrifices to Poseidon. There were some major repairs required of my new ship, or rather, completions, for she’d been taken in a state of ‘near’ completion, and for example, her hull had never been properly pitched, nor her main deck completed. I wanted to use the festival to give her a name-feast like a new-built ship, but Damon and Nestor convinced me to get her finished first, and so she went into the beach and headed for the shipwrights. There was a lot of work to do, and that took my days.
But in the evenings, sitting on beautiful terraces high above the sea, we heard news and plotted strategies.
Archilogos was there, with his own squadron; four ships from Ephesos and another two from once-mighty Miletus, as well as three more from the smaller coastal towns on the Asia Minor side of the straight.
Chios had ten ships serving with the Allies, and Lesvos five, but piracy, or it’s near cousin, privateering, has a wide appeal, and we had my three friends from Lesvos and the promise of at least Neoptolymos from Chios, and Parmenio rowed away after the festival with Amaranth, one of our captures from Tyre, towed behind with a skeleton crew under Damon.
As is too often the case, I’ve left my oar and I’m gathering wool at the rail, so to speak, but it’s difficult to discuss strategy unless you know where your ships are.
Most of my trierarchs wanted to raid Aegypt. It stood to reason, as Aegypt was the richest and most exotic land on the inner sea, and she was under Persian domination, and her merchants rivalled Ionian merchants in every port. But there were three signal problems, and I laid them out in front of all the captains and Briseis and Archilogos and a dozen other local aristocrats who’d become the ‘court’ of the new Ionian revolt.
‘First,’ I said, holding up my hand in the Greek way, ‘First, Aegypt’s navy is almost untouched. The Phoenicians are crippled and the Carians are gradually changing sides, but Aegypt can probably still put more warships into the water than all of the Greek states combined.
Second, friends, let’s try and remember that the poor bloody Aegyptians have revolted against the Great King almost as often as we ourselves. Striking their merchants will only serve to drive them closer to their overlord. Really, what we’d like is a nice Aegyptian revolt.’
That got a great many nods. Lesvos and Chios are centers of trade with Cyprus and Aegypt; many aristocrats here had guest friends in Aegypt, or long family associations. And we all knew, and had known since the dawn of the first Ionian rebellion back in the year of the Battle at Sardis, that if only we could convince the Aegyptians to rise with us, we’d deny the Persians access to the sea altogether.
I raised my hand. ‘And last,’ I said, ‘Last, but not least, Aegypt is a long row away to the south. We’d be taking our last line of defence and rowing ten days away. That would allow Artaphernes to raid Lesvos or Chios at will; to try a siege of Miletus or even Ephesos.
It was odd, but having lost the first Ionian revolt, we actually knew how certain strategies played out. We’d raided Cyprus; we’d fought a naval battle there, twenty years ago, and we’d won it. But we’d lost the land battle and the Persians had laid siege to three Ionian mainland cities while our fleet was busy in the south.
Even aristocrats can learn from their mistakes, I find.
Archilogos had also been against the Aegyptian venture. Now he rolled off his couch and stood up.
‘If we’re not going to Aegypt,’ he said, ‘What do you propose?’
Agon, the senior trierarch from Miletus, raised himself on one elbow. ‘I think we should stay right here,’ he said. ‘Arimnestos says the Carians are coming over to us, and that may be true, but we haven’t seen much of them yet, and the Queen of Halicarnassus was out early this spring, collecting tribute for Xerxes. We should patrol from Black Cape all the way up to the Dardanelles.’
‘And how do we pay our oarsmen?’ Herakles of Eresos asked.
You get the gist. We debated two nights running, while the excellent Lesbian wine made the rounds and my wife sat in a woman’s chair, watching, offering nothing.
An the third night, in the shared pleasure of the festival and all the rites we’d celebrated, and a good dinner of sacrificial beef, we voted unanimously to send our squadron down to Halicarnassus and along the coast of Caria. It was a typically Greek compromise; not too close, not too far, in the direction of the Allied Fleet so we could get news of it, some chance of prizes among the Syrian and Carian coasters.
The only problem was that I’d been sailing around the Aegean in an ship that wasn’t really completed, and I’d already begun to strip her and finish the pitch and the decking. There was nothing to be done about it; Nestor had already found worm in my new ship’s planking and we knew we’d have to come at it.
So the Ionian Squadron went to sea without me. In other circumstances, I’d have been worried; command is a touchy thing, and command among peers and volunteers can be a nightmare. But Archilogos took command and I knew he’d do it well; and I also knew that he was an Ionian, a true Aeolian, and they’d follow him anywhere. I worried that he’d be rash, still trying to prove himself to Xanthippus and Pausanias and Aristides; and I worried that he and my wife had plots within their plots.
But there was nothing, and I mean nothing, that was going to get my ship to sea for another week. And I had Briseis all to myself.
Well, after the sun set, anyway.
By day she sat in the cool of her porch, surrounded by other aristocratic women. One would read poetry, usually Sappho, and the rest would weave or embroider. In fact, my new house, about half way up the hill to the fortress, had been purchased mostly for the size and beauty of that porch, and there, the wives of the so-called leaders debated the strategies and watched the waters far below.
I was stripped as naked as a slave and spotted with black pine pitch, which burns, by the way, even when as it sticks to your skin. Twenty of us were pitching the hull of the new Raven, and we had her masts out and her hull turtled on the beach and several hundred paces of local scaffolding all over her upturned hull, where it looked like half the timbers were missing. We’d had to take a third of the planks off her, a terrible job in the early summer sun, and I’d paid two local shipwrights for the pleasure of using ‘their’ beach and paid more for their workmen, but my sailors seemed to do most of the work, which may be the norm in these situations.
But we had the planks back on, and the pitch was from Thrake, and we had enough, thank the Gods, because Thrake was really just two days away to the north. Pitch of this quality was ten times the price in Athens and worse elsewhere.
I was thinking a great deal about Thrake those days, because of my new dream of a colony. I’d been in the Chersonese with Miltiades, twenty ears before, and, as I keep telling you, every day of the new Ionian Revolt seemed to put me in mind of something from the old one, so that I had the strangest feeling of reliving my own past. I kept expecting Miltiades to ask me to walk with him, or Epaphroditos to walk around the stern of my beached ship.
I was just contemplating how I’d once exchanged a bunch of Phoenician hostages on this very beach, with bloody results, when a small trading ship came round the breakwater. She seemed to appear by magic, which is just an effect of the long headland and the warehouses; but there was something dramatic about her entrance and she was under full sail, right close in, which seemed odd.
To be fair, it seemed odd, but I’d done the same a few days before, showing away like a pimply boy. Did I mention this? That night, as I lay with my wife’s head on my chest, I asked, just a little put out, ‘Did you see us land the ship?’
Briseis wriggled. ‘Yes,’ she said. ‘If I hadn’t seen you coming, I wouldn’t have been there to greet you.’
I grimaced. ‘Did you see the manner of our landing?’ I asked.
She raised her head. ‘It looked…’ she stared into my eyes. ‘Was it something remarkable?’
The merchant ship rounded the point. She shot up, head into the wind, and dropped her mainsail and her fore mast sail too, and dropped her anchor stone, and a swimmer leapt into the water. That was dramatic; they had news.
I walked, with as much naked, pitch-splattered dignity as I could muster, along the beach until I reached the point that the swimmer would land.
He was a slim boy, and looked more Aegyptian than Greek, but his voice was pure Aeolian.
‘Persian ships in the Thracian Sea,’ he said.
# # #
The curious thing about people is when they panic.
You might have thought that, as we’d just sent our fleet away to the south for at least ten days and we knew the allies were still laying siege to Amathus and my lovely ‘Raven’ was lying upside down with all her innards out like a dead bird on the beach, that news of a hitherto unimagined Persian squadron loose in the Thracian sea would have panicked us all.
Especially as the news was worse than that. The actual news was that Tenedos and Lemnos had launched triremes to support the Ionians, and that they had met the Persian squadron and been taken; four triremes lost, and two Chian wine ships taken as well, all in three days.
Poseidenos practically rubbed his hands together with glee.
‘Oh, now we’re for it,’ he said.
And we were. We worked by torchlight on the beach, and we worked in the burning heat of the noonday sun. We worked, and swam to take away the sting of the pitch burns, and then we worked again. Every man of my crew worked, and most of the nautical population of Mythymna worked.
As we worked, we looked out to sea, watching the horizon for the mysterious Persian squadron. The town had a garrison of local men, and they would shout tidings down from the fortress, seven hundred steps above us; they could see to Asia, North and east and west, so that only south was hidden, and we expected no foe from the south.
When we thought we were almost done, we found more rot; more Tenedos worm. That was a time to curse the gods, but no one did. We took more planks off, in places removing pitch we’d just laid on. In two days, working every tide, we’d closed up the hull, pitched her stem to stern, so that she was smooth and shiny and black from ram to swan’s wing.
We rolled her back onto her keel and washed her clean and ran her into the sea; we finished the main deck planking and got her masts in at the stone pier that men had built in the time of the Trojan War.
I summoned the priest of Poseidon, because sometimes you have to know you’ve done everything that could be done. I called her ‘The Raven of Apollo’ again, and we painted raven’s wings on the bow behind the eyes and the ram, which swept forward like a beak, and which we painted black to match the hull, with a thin line of expensive vermillion along the Thranite oar ports. Briseis said the words, the priest prayed, we all sang the hymn to Poseidon…
I begin to sing about Poseidon, the great god, mover of the earth and the fruitful sea, god of the deep who is also lord of Helicon and wide Aegae. A two-fold office the gods allotted to you, Earth shaker! You are the tamer of horses and the saviour of ships!
And then, without wasting another prayers, oarsmen and sailors and marines were dashing up the long planks from the stern.
Briseis kissed me, the last man on the beach.
‘I made you something,’ she said. ‘Because the only time you dress well is when you go to fight.’
She handed me a chiton.
The wool was scarlet, dyed in some eastern place, maybe with the fantastical ‘grains’. The edges had fancy work, and the whole garment had enough embroidery to turn a spear point; ravens and sunbursts.
‘I’ll only get blood on it,’ I said.
‘See that it’s someone else’s,’ she said. ‘Anyway, that’s why it’s red. Get going, before Nestor says something unforgivable.’
I kissed her, the pleasure all too fleeting, and ran up the plank.
It was mid-morning; three days since we’d heard of a Persian squadron, perhaps five days since they’d taken the ships of Lemnos and Tenedos. Somewhere, there was a Persian officer who’d missed a chance to take me and mine helpless on a beach.
Apollo’s Raven was going to make him rue his error.
# # #
The thing that makes Lesvos so essential to any maritime strategy in the Eastern Mediterranean is the way it sits like a good neighbour, hard against the coast of Asia. The island is so close to Asia that you can swim there, on a good day, although there’s quite a current in the channel and if you aren’t careful you are dead.
But it’s not just close to Asia. Lesvos is a day’s rowing south of the Dardanelles, the straight that guards the entrance to the Euxine, or Black Sea. A day south, and you are in the midst of the great Ionian city-states; two days south, and you are in the Dodecanese, with Rhodos and Samos close at hand. With ten or more wonderful harbours, Lesvos offers refuge to every pirate and a base to every invader.
The Lesbians didn’t seem to celebrate the Thargelion, which we celebrate in Plataea and they also celebrate in Athens; a religious festival given mostly to the fruits of agriculture, it marks the end of spring and the beginning of summer; the ‘birthdays’ of Apollo and Artemis. We sailed on Thargelion 5, a day before the Feast of Artemis, and ran due north. This ‘Persian squadron’ puzzled me, because I couldn’t see how it could exist. that is, I was not surprised that there were still ships and men loyal to the Great King, Xerxes; Even after Artemesium, Salamis, Mycale, and our little raid on Tyre, I suspect the Great King and his allies still had more ships than we did ourselves.
But his ships were mostly from Phoenicia; we’d hit Tyre but not Sidon, and they no doubt had a hundred triremes alone. And north of Phoenicia, Artemesia of Halicarnassus and her allies among the Carian cities had another twenty, or even as many as fifty ships, and they’d been out early in the spring; canny captains and first rate ships.
But up in the north? Lemnos and Tenedos were islands near the mouth of the Dardanelles, and north of them was the coast of European Thrace, or Thrake.
Boyhood had taught me to be a patient hunter. And I was after big game; to take four or five Ionian triremes had to be the work of at least three big triremes, and maybe as many as five.
I just had a hard time imagining where those five had come from. Which, in a way, was a tribute to my ignorance.
I knew what the merchants said; the fight had been close to Lemnos. I knew that win or lose, a trireme needed to beach for the night, unless the trierarch was exceptionally daring. A squadron that had taken ships and men prisoner would need the beach all the more, to put a few reliable men aboard each capture.
I put up my mainsail and ran up the gentle south wind for Lemnos.
It was fully dark before we put our anchor stones over the side. We coasted into one of the open beaches on the Asia side of the island; huge beaches like half-moons sunk in the sea. We slept on our oars and ate honey and sesame and garlic sausage, and before dawn we were moving, prowling the coast, looking for a camp or a sign. Instead we found a fishing boat, out early; two young men more interested in giggling like girls than in keeping watch, so that we picked them up before they even knew we were there.
It was the feast of Artemis, and they weren’t boys. They were two young girls, twelve or thirteen; the age when all women are sacred to Artemis. I took it as a sign. We were all courtly and gentle, as it was Artemis’ day; the coarsest oarsman understood the importance of our ‘capture.’
They had no fear of us, as young women often do, and we gave them no reason to fear us; a half a cup of watered wine, and they joined in telling us that a Persian captain had bought sheep from the village and threatened their father and rowed away north with two ships badly damaged and in tow, leaving two hundred captured oarsmen on the beach.
We sent them on their way with a couple of gold darics as a reward.
I landed a little after dawn and sought out the recently captured oarsmen, and got the entire story; a brutal tale of bad luck and terrible mismanagement. The captains quarrelled; they made separate landings and separate camps on separate beaches, and two were taken before the others even knew what had happened; the other two launched to make a fight of it but were overwhelmed.
Oarsmen can be coarse, and they are often ignorant as pigs of anything on land including how to spend a few drachma. But when a hundred oarsmen tell you that the enemy has eight triremes, you have to believe them.
‘Twelve now,’ a slab-cheeked brute said. ‘Oh, lord, it was tragic like a bad play.’
‘Some o’ ta’ fuekin’ marines just sat an’ surrendered like,’ another oar called.
It surfaced that Lemnos had social problems; the oarsmen and the sailors came from a class that supported Athens and thus Greece, but the hoplites and officers were… less sure.
Let’s be fair; odd of eight to two might make me sit and surrender, or at least consider it.
So; my enemy had at least eight triremes, some of them damaged, and he’d sailed away north on much the same breeze I’d used coming off Lesvos.
It was shocking. Disheartening. We’d won every sea-fight for two years; we’d thumbed our noses at them. I thought the Persians cowed and hiding in their ports, and here was some bold sprite taking Ionian ships in the Aegean.
Couldn’t be allowed.
At the same time, odd of twelve to one or so didn’t really appeal.
On the other hand, it was the feast of Artemis. We fought Artemesium under the eyes of Artemis, and we fought Salamis while the Brauron girls prayed, and Artemis had always been more a friend to us than her brother. And as I said before, when Briseis and her women blessed our oarsmen, something changed, some feeling, some… luck.
An hour later, we were running north for the coast of Thrake. I’d been on this coast a dozen times; I’d raided her with Miltiades and I’d sold slaves at Mesembria.
Nestor was watching the peak of Samothrake as we left the tip of Lemnos behind. ‘Behind Samothrake there’s a dozen harbours on the Thracian coast,’ he said. ‘One long beach.’
‘Doriskos has a Persian garrison,’ Damon put in from the steering oars.
Doriskos. We’d always given it a wide birth, back when we were pirates of the Chersonese, precisely because the garrison was large, and well-led. The governor was Maskames, a Persian noble and nobody’s fool.
Doriskos had to be the lead suspect, then. The fortress itself was well up the local river from the sea; a deep river in a wide delta, more like a jungle than like the oak forests of European Thrake. I’d heard it was impregnable. I’d never actually laid eyes on it.
We sailed to Samothrake in two hours, pulled around the island, and then rowed on, even though we might have sailed. We were a lone Greek ship on a hostile coast; the Thracians would hate us as much as the Persians. Without sails we were almost invisible.
From Samothrake to Doriskos is about three hours sail. The coastline is low, with a long beach, but the birds give away the river delta before you can see the low lying land. The Evros is a mighty river that rises far inland; it’s only navigable the first twenty stadia or so, but it is wide and deep that far.
When we were a dozen stadia off the coast, we could see the low land and the beaches.
‘What do you think?’ I asked my officers.
Damon looked out under his hand. ‘You could hide a fleet up that river,’ he said.
Nestor nodded. ‘What I was going to say.’
I wanted to curse, but it was the birthday of Artemis and I had to trust her.
‘Lay us for the river mouth,’ I said.
‘There’s a sandbar,’ Nestor said. ‘It’s like a half-moon off the main mouth; you have to row in with the land and pass into the river mouth hard by the land.’
‘You seem to know the place well,’ I said.
He shrugged. ‘Been here twice,’ he admitted. ‘Running cargoes, like.’
That seemed fair. Believe it or not, there never was a law in Athens against trading with the Persians.
It was a little after mid-day. A terrible time to attempt to spy on anyone, as the bright sun lights on your rigging and shines off your oars.
On the other hand, with new pine pitch and the favour of Artemis, I was confident we could outrun pursuit.
‘Lay us for the shore, hard by the river entrance,’ I said.
We ran a fishing net up the boat sail mast, and decorated it with some greenery as soon as we were in with the land; a fish net and a mast, with some green leaves, looks remarkably like a tree from any distance. And in a river lined with trees thicker than hoplites on a battlefield…
We ran a second net up the mainmast, and Aten fetched us most of an oak tree.
The Evros is about two stadia wide in the main mouth, and stays that wide for twenty stadia of length. We crept upstream; I was already aware of the lateness of the hour, and how far we’d have to go to land safely on Samothrake, and how short of water we were. The whole thing was insane, anyway; one ship against ten or twelve, in their home territory…
I had only the lower deck rowing. I was resting all my good rowers, because I expected to have to run. And I walked down the main rowing deck, telling every rower what I was going to do when we were spotted; turn end for end, pivoting in place, the port side rowers reversing on their benches while the starboard rower forward.
I didn’t have a plan. I just wanted to press my luck and see what Artemis would give me.
We rounded bend after bend, and each time, instead of a view into the enemy port, we’d see another stretch of muddy water lined in big trees.
Two hours past the middle of the day. We barely had steerage way against the current; and the river was cold; cold enough to make me wish for a cloak when we were shaded by the big trees. Snow melt from the mountains deep in Thrake.
We turned, and turned. There were mud-bars in the river, shadows like sharks in the depths, but our bowmen called them out and Damon earned a month’s pay in an hour. And that’s why we went so slowly.
Somewhere in the third hour, the boy in the bow missed a shadow passing under the ram, and we struck. It was a long, soft strike; that mud bank whispered under our keel for as long as a man might count to ten.
And then we stopped.
We were so well stuck on that bank that the ship felt as soldi as if it had been on dry land.
I tired rocking her off by having Styges lead the marines up and down the catwalk, but that had no effect except to increase my frustration.
‘Artemis!’ I said aloud.
I moved all the sailors well aft, with the marines, so that the helmsman was crowded with all of them. he ship moved a little, but not much.
I shook my head, biting my lip. I was on a fool’s errand, led by some belief in luck and the Goddess Artemis, and my ship was aground in a Thracian river, even if this wasn’t a Persian pirate base. The Thracians are not a joke. They’d come at sunset, or a little later. three or four hundred. With fire arrows.
I felt deeply foolish. And all my people looked at me.
‘Hush!’ Styges said, with gentle force.
Most of the men fell quiet.
And there, somewhere upriver, probably quite close through the trees even if several stadia away in the winding belly of the snake-like river, we heard voices. It was a timoneer calling the stroke on a warship.
An enemy warship.
My beautiful warship was stuck on a mud bank, and there was a trireme somewhere within shouting distance.
I leaned down into the thalamite deck.
‘Can you lads swim?’ I asked.
Every man-jack raised his hand.
‘Over the side,’ I said. ‘Stow your oar and jump. Fast as you can.’
Fifty-four men. At three talents each, I was getting rid of the weight of an entire cargo load.
Clear as day, in good Greek, I heard the timoneer yell ‘Sixteen, row dry or I’m coming for you!’ in a voice like thunder.
‘They’re Greek!’ said some young fool among my lower deck oarsmen.
‘Over the side,’ I ordered.
They went. The water was freezing cold, and they went, one after another.
‘Nestor, ropes over the side. We’ll want them back.’
As half of them went, I could feel the deck alive beneath my feet. Two-thirds, and we were afloat.
I pointed at Poseidenos. ‘Back water,’ I said, as softly as I could manage.
About two hundred paces upstream, a beautifully painted trireme began to make the turn, and her ram-clad bow appeared from among the trees like an actor coming out of the scenery at the festival of Dionysos.
‘We’re clear,’ Aten yelled.
A hard decision. A third of my oarsmen in the water, and we are bow-on to an enemy. back water? Fight?
‘Get them aboard,’ I said. I looked for Ka. Bless him, he’d already climbed the standing mast; he was hidden among the greenery.
His former helots and the old man we’d picked up in Piraeus were all down the side.
‘Hide your bows,’ I said. ‘Marines, lie down.’
Herakleitus used to say that most men see only what they want to see.
That trireme came downstream, turned neatly and with long practice to avoid the mud bar that had taken us, and only then did the command and helmsmen see us. But then we were perhaps fifty paces apart, and he was moving at a fair speed; a little faster than a man walking, and we were perfectly still, our main yard in among the branches of a mighty oak.
By then the thalamites were mostly aboard; half a dozen were still in the water, but they’d all had the presence of mind to drop into the water on the landward side.
The enemy trierarch said something, and the helmsman turned, looked at him, and flicked the steering oar. We were close enough to see then clearly.
‘What the fuck?’ we heard their trierarch say.
I think he’d spent some long seconds assuming I was a friend; but the triemiola build would have given us away; no one used them but pirates and Sicilians.
‘Shoot,’ I said.
A bronze-tipped sleet fell on the enemy ship, and there were screams.
None of our archers missed, at thirty paces.
‘Back water,’ I ordered. I still had only two thirds of my rowers, because the thalamites weren’t back in their seats yet, and the ship was listing sharply to port because that’s what a light hull does when men are climbing the port side. It made it hard for the starboard side rowers. Hard for everyone.
As a result, we backed water, but we bumped our stern into the shore.
And then Artemis leaned down from the heavens and played her part.
Ka and the older man with the unpronounceable barbarian name were loosing so fast that their arrows seemed to flow out of them; Nehmet gave his high-pitched grunt every time he loosed.
Our enemy had a long, low trireme; even lower than usual, like my friend Epaphroditos had… come to think of it, that was a northern Aegean ship with all the fancy paint…. She seemed longer than most triremes; her rowing frame was perhaps a tenth longer than mine, or more.
She was going downstream, remember, at a walking pace, and then the trierarch had ordered that the helm turn towards us. We backed water and slammed our stern into the bank.
The current caught our bow. The various problems our oarsmen were having, and perhaps a gentle nudge from the Goddess, and we were turning rapidly, our bow following the movement of the enemy ship like a hunters hand and eye following a bird on the wing before he looses his arrow.
And then our little advantages began to tell.
We knew we were in an enemy river. All our marines were in their armour. Our archers were armed and loosing arrow after arrow; their helm was a bloody mess, and the trierarch was already dead. The helmsman fell across his oars, turning his craft to starboard, away from us, out into the current.
And his marines had other problems.
Something was wrong amidships; I couldn’t tell for certain, but it seemed to me that his oarsmen were attacking his marines.
‘Don’t shoot the oarsmen!” I roared.
Then I looked back at Damon. ‘Put our beak into her,’; I said.
I motioned at Poseidenos. ‘Prepare to row forward,’ I said.
‘Catch!’ he bellowed.
Perhaps a hundred oars responded, going to the ‘prepare’ position, oar extended, high in the air, waiting for the order to dip.
I nodded to Damon and started forward towards the marines. Ka loosed up above me.
‘Give way!” called Damon.
‘Styges!’ I called. ‘Over the bow. Kill the marines and she’s ours.’
Styges said nothing. He only pointed.
A second trireme was coming around the next bend.
# # #
We touched. It wasn’t anything like a ram; our ram slid under her keel, probably stripping away a layer of pitch; our bow stopped on their oar frame with a deep creak as the good oak took the strain. We began to drift downstream.
An arrow whispered past me.
‘Do it!’ I ordered.
Styges leapt, followed by Zephyrites and Kassandros, Akilles and Leander and the rest.
I had meant to go with them, but instead I stood on my own small foredeck and watched the oncoming trireme. She was still struggling to make the tight turn in the river, her portside oars backing; a number of oars crossed. that one observation told me everything; a scratch crew, or a mixed crew. Captured oarsmen? Something like that.
These were the captured Lemnian ships; I had little doubt. At a guess, that meant there were two more coming behind, or perhaps the whole squadron.
‘Damon!’ I yelled. I ran for the steering oars. This was going to be close, and I needed the gods to keep the next trireme in a state of confusion for a little while.
‘Giorgos!’ I yelled at the thranite. ‘You and Philokles there. Cross your oars and come up on deck.’
They obeyed, looking confused.
‘Nestor! Choose four deck hands to go with Damon. Armour, weapons. You stay here. Steady men, you hear me?’
‘Aye, aye, sir.’
I ran aft to the oars.
‘Hand over, Damon. Take the sailors and two master-oarsmen, follow the marines and take that ship out of here.’ I was pointing at the ship next to us. We’d come together bow to their amidships, just aft of the mast.
My marines had already cleared the enemy deck. As I heard later, the archers had done all the work; there wasn’t a living enemy marine or officer. Styges was shouting at the oarsmen, and Leander stood behind him like an avenging fury.
‘Go!’ I roared at my prize crew. ‘Get underway and follow me!’
Damon waved, and made the leap to the enemy ship’s bow, followed by the sailors and the two oarsmen.
I watched Giorgos leap; he was last.
‘Back oars!’ I called over Poseidenos.
They reversed their benches like veterans.
I nodded to Poseidenos, and he roared ‘Give way! And! Stroke!’
In one stroke we were away, our ram gliding out from under their hull even as Giorgos made the leap to their deck and rolled forward. The current was forcing the hulls together; the other ship was about to strike the far bank stern first and I needed to be clear.
I looked back over the swan’s breast of the stern, leaning well out. This is why the commander is usually amidships; the stern is well-protected but offers very little vision.
‘Aten, get to the bow,’ I ordered. I leaned out, leaving the steering for a moment. That’s a pretty dangerous thing to do in the middle of a sea fight, in a river, with a current. But I had to see for myself. I needed to know… all those things you can know when you look at your opponent.
So I risked it, and looked.
There was the second trireme, just at the end of her turn, her bow coming on like, perhaps three hundred paces away. Her oar-loom was a mess; tight turns are never easy, and that looked as if Athena or Artemis had aided me with a little chaos; some poor bastard had broken ribs where his oar-shaft had caught a crab and slammed into him, panicking his mates.
Ot so I guessed, in one glance. I caught the steering oars before they could swing on the current and looked at the banks. We were backing upstream; slowly enough that we seemed to be standing still. The ship Styges had taken had struck the far bank now, stern first, and was starting to turn in the current just as we had, her bow being taken downstream while her stern stayed tight to the bank, the graceful forward curve of the overhang of her stem caught in branches, her stern lightly stuck in the bank’s soft mud.
That was Damon’s problem, now.
What I had to decide was whether I had to turn and fight the next ship, or whether I could run.
‘Prepare to ‘about ship’ to port,’ I said. That would cause the port side rowers to stay reversed and pull, while the starboard side rowers rowed forward, until we’d turned end for end.
Poseidenos was down in the rowing frame and could see when all his people were ready. When he raised his hand, I ordered ‘About ship!’
‘Stroke!’ Poseidenos said.
And we started to turn.
Turning against a current is hard. Judging a turn as the current moves you downstream towards a turn and a mud bank is harder still.
I glanced over at the ship we’d taken. Damon wasn’t even in the steering oars; he was amidships, bellowing commands.
My next opponent was a hundred and fifty paces away.
‘Pull! Pull, my brave lads!’ I cried. I wished I had a really good singer to lead them. I needed the bow around faster. And the current was slowing us.
‘Pull you bastards!’ Poseidenos called. ‘And! PULL!’
The deck heeled slightly.
My bow was beginning to line up with the enemy ship. And she was coming on.
Ka was waving his hand for my attention. He pointed at his bow.
‘Yes!’ I called up to the masthead.
He turned away, already nocking an arrow.
Aten waved, and I waved back. It’s not that easy to see the length of a triemiola; the standing masts and rigging prevent good vision.
I called for one of the deck crew to take the port side steering oar. We didn’t usually put a man on either side, but if I stood at the starboard oar I could see the length of the starboard side; a much better view of the world, allowing me to watch the onrushing enemy ship and Damon as well.
I made my decision. Damon was all the way around, his bow pointing downstream, and he had all his sailors and marines polling off the bank.
It was too late for the enemy ship to change direction and aim at our capture; also suicide, in that I’d be able to oar-rake him at the very least.
Trireme combat is all about being fifteen to twenty heart-beats ahead of the action. Everything takes time; time to relay orders, time to row, time to accelerate or decelerate the sheer mass of the ship.
‘Prepare to back oars,’ I ordered. We were bow on to our opponent, but there was nothing to be gained by accepting a head to head engagement.
His marines were in his bow.
My archers were playing on them, at seventy paces.
‘Back oars!’ I called.
‘Stroke!’ Poseidenos ordered.
One stroke, and we were moving, because we were going with the current.
Fifty paces. Six archers, all of them growing tired because this was the second engagement. No enemy archers at all; perhaps the Persian commander didn’t trust these captured Ionians, or he didn’t have enough real Medes to put on the ships.
Ka, shooting down into the enemy bow, was deadliest.
By the third stroke, we were moving quite quickly.
By the fifth stroke, it was unlikely that our attacker would strike hard enough to damage us.
We were passing the captured ship now, leaving her behind on the far bank. She did have her oars in the water.
A fourth ship appeared at the bend in the river. She was six hundred maces away,
I had other problems. I wasn’t used to fine steering. It was years since I’d spent much time at my own helm, and I was about to try backing around a bend in the river.
My heart began to beat hard enough that I felt as if I was choking.
It’s one of those things; I never remember feeling this way in combat; sometimes before, and occasionally after, but never during. But steering my ship with two hundred lives depending on my steering…
I leaned out. The bend went to the starboard side and was not, thank Poseidon, terribly sharp. I leaned in and looked at my fellow steersman, who was a young sailor I didn’t really know at all.
‘Nicanor, lord,’ he said with a confident smile.
‘You ready, Nicanor?’
He nodded, leaned out, and leaned back in. ‘Probably a sand bank on the starboard side,’ he said.
Of course there was.
Always have a sailor around when you need one.
I leaned out again, saw the bank moving by a little faster than a walking pace; I looked upstream, and there was our attacker, now about twenty paces away. Nehmet was not shooting; he was lifting the boards on the foredeck; out of arrows, I had to surmise, and going after the stores there.
I glanced back at the young man on the portside steering oar.
‘Ready?’ I asked.
‘Give her a little, sir,’ he said. ‘Little more. Going to turn like a right slug, she is.’
There I was, the terror of the seas, trusting a twenty-year old to judge the turn.
‘There,’ he said.
‘Turn three points,’ I called out, and leaned on my oar.
It’s very different, turning a ship from the stern when going stern first. Try turning any boat from the bow, when you’re going forward.
”Starboard side, drag your oars,’ I called.
Poseidenos repeated my order.
We turned. When we’d turned almost far enough, I told Poseidenos to stop, and he had them lift their oars free, and we were around, the last degrees managed by the steering oars as we continued in the center of the river. We had two stadia of straight rowing before the next turn; this one a sharpish bend of a disorder of floating tree trunks in the hollow of the bend.
One crisis at a time.
‘Back oars,’ I repeated.
Poseidenos nodded at me.
‘Steady,’ I said to my partner at the helm.
Nehmet was handing sheaves of bundled arrows to the other archers, and Aten was sending four sheaves aloft on a line, to Ka.
Our opponent took the turn. He was going faster than we, and trying to make up distance; he cut in to the turn, shaving the bend.
Just for a moment he was too close to the bank…
Twenty or thirty oars caught on the out-thrust mud bank. Men screamed as their shafts turned on them. Some splintered.
She shot through the shallow water, losing some way but ploughing over the shallows with a muddy bow wave, and as soon as she was into the deeper water she began to turn to my starboard, because all her port side oars were dragging in the chaos after the self-administered oar rake.
I was tempted. But I didn’t have another prize crew; my deck was already thin.
We continued backing.
The capture came around the bend, bow first, rowing cautiously. But she got past the enemy ship, which was rocking as sailors ran to get spare oars into the mangled hands of the oarsmen on their port side.
I could see Leander in the bow, watching the enemy ship the way a sea-eagle watches a salmon. Arius waved, and I waved back; Diodoros was leaning out the far side, looking at something.
I had Poseidenos check our way, and the capture went past us, the rowing ragged. Damon didn’t even glance my way.
‘Nestor,’ I ordered. ‘Take my place.’
‘Aye,’ sir,’ he said.
‘I think we should turn end for end,’ I said.
‘Thought you meant to back all the way downstream?’ Nestor said. He raised an eyebrow. ‘Yes, we should get the bow in front. I hear it’s the sailor-like way to proceed.’
His sarcasm was wasted on me, and I leaned down to Poseidenos and outlined my plan.
He gave the preparatory, and we coasted, as the oarsmen changed seats. The next bend seemed to rush towards us, and turning end for end is not always the easiest manoeuvre.
But if you give your people time; if you prepare them for complex manoeuvres, they will respond, and in this case, I counted off to thirty, to make sure everyone was ready.
‘About ship,’ I ordered.
And around we went. Now the current was pushing to bow, not the other way around, and we turned end for end faster than I thought possible, with hundreds of paces to spare. Damon was just making the next turn, carefully staying in the deep water.
The river widened past the bend; I could see it already.
I had to think ahead. I knew where to find a friendly beach on Lemnos, but we wouldn’t make it before darkness, and I didn’t relish leaving Damon with a hostile ship and no food in a blue water voyage in the dark.
I didn’t know it. But it was the logical place to go.
I didn’t really know the mouth of the Evros all that well, but I knew it was a delta, with five or six mouths.
‘Nestor,’ I said. ‘Is there another mouth that’s navigable?’
He made a face. ‘I suppose,’ he said. ‘Tough in a big ship like this.’
‘Can we get over the bar?’ I asked. I described my plan to him and he looked frightened for a moment, and then nodded.
‘Aye,’ he said. ‘It’s… possible. And maybe… maybe we’ll be inside the bar all the time. I think it’s like a big half moon, off all the mouths.’
‘That’d be good.’
I went forward to prevent the sailors from throwing the greenery over the sides.
Bow first, the bends in the river were nowhere near as challenging. I had to dissuade the sailors from laying the sails to the masts, a process by which the yards are brought on deck and the sails attached, preparatory to raising them.
We weren’t going to raise our sails.
My next concern had to be Thracians. But way out in the delta, I suspected that they couldn’t come; they’d have to cross two or three other deep branches of the river to reach us. We didn’t have a lot of good, or clean fresh water, and the Evros was both cold and muddy, and who knew how many men and women had pissed in it this close to the sea? I liked to get my water in small creeks, or straight from a spring; common enough on Greek islands, sometimes smelling a little of sulphur.
There ought to be fish, though.
And even a fractious crew can get through a night without food. It’s not a great option; hunger and thirst and fatigue are the same thing as fear for most men, and fear turns quickly to anger.
We went downstream a good deal faster than we’d run upstream; we were less cautious and we had the current with us. The distance that took us all morning to run off, going upstream, was the matter of two hours downstream, and I could see the sea over the last long neck of land; a low hump of sand dunes, treeless except for one lone pine tree, and I thought of the old pine forests along the beach at Marathon.
I hadn’t seen a pursuer in an hour, except sometimes, as we raced along, we’d see the top of their boat sail masts above the low banks of the lower estuary; always two turns behind, and being cautious.
I waved a spear with a red chiton on it until I had Damon’s attention, and he let me go ahead.
‘Follow me,’ I said.
Leander waved, and Styges pointed at something with his spear.
The water got deeper, and there was a touch of swell; the water would now be brackish, if not salt.
‘East or west?’ I asked Nestor.
He made that face. ‘Ten years since I came this way,’ he admitted. ‘Lot can change in a river.’
‘East,’ he said.
We were only out on the sea for three or four stadia, pulling like heroes along inside the bar, the drifted silt and mud of a thousand springs, when the mighty waters would rush south from the Thracian mountains, and deposit their dirt at the mouth.
We stayed perhaps two hundred paces off the long beach. We passed two small openings, but the third was wide enough to take a trireme, and we turned, having overshot, and pulled in. We passed a long spit of mud and sand and then slipped along a narrow channel, just about twice as wide as a trireme and her oars, and we slowed to a stop as the vegetation closed in on both banks, turned our ship about while there was still room to do such a thing, and so that we were bow on if attacked, and dropped our anchor stones in water only about twice as deep as our hull.
Damon followed us in.
As soon as he had his ship turned and anchored ahead of us, I sent Aten and another boy, along with Arius and Diodoros, ashore on the south bank, to work their way to the sea and keep watch. I had the sailors redecorate our masts with greenery, but I was already confident that we were invisible from the sea side. I was conscious that I didn’t know how much farther our arm of the delta extended, and I decided there and then to get myself a penteconter or a smaller ship to use as a scout.
The oarsmen lay on their oars, telling stories and complaining, no doubt. I served out a little wine and some honey and sesame seeds, and we waited as the spring muops, the biting flies came out in shoals and bit us unmercifully. They were near to driving me mad, and I could move around on the deck, and I cursed several dozen times and wondered aloud what they ate when they didn’t have Plataeans.
They got worse at twilight, which is when Diodoros came back.
‘By Artemis,’ he said. ‘The insects are bad here.’
‘I’m near a mutiny,’ I snapped.
‘No bugs on the beach,’ he said. ‘We saw their whole squadron; seven ships. They went south towards Samothrake, rowing hard. Rowing hard enough to make splashes, Aten told me to tell you.’
‘And you say there are no insects on the beach?’ I asked.
‘A few. Not like this,’ he said, swatting three.
‘Nestor, look alive. Warp us over to the seaward bank.’
Nestor used the last light of the day to give me the kind of look the dog gives a cruel master.
‘Nestor, dammit! There are no insects on the beach. We’re safe; we’re going to sleep on the sand.’
‘Aphrodite’s swelling…’ he paused ‘Aye, aye, sir,’ he said. ‘Come on, you lubbers.’
The moans and complaints didn’t cease until they were asleep, but the beach, and its breeze, were a damn sight better than the inwards of a ship in a cloud of midges. It was a warm night, and I was asleep in about as much time as it took to pull my cloak over my head.
# # #
We rose before dawn. I split the crews, taking half of the Ionian oarsmen out of the other ship, the ‘Wings of Nike’ and replacing them with my own people. I divided my sailors, and put Leander in charge of Akilles and Arios and Diodoros, and I gave them the old archer and two former helots, so that they had some chance in a ship fight.
I took Damon aside. ‘Don’t fight anything,’ I said. ‘If we get split, run for Mythymna.’
‘We need food,’ he said.
‘Wind is from the north,’ I said. ‘We can be in Mythymna tomorrow mid-day. They’ll be hungry, but short of rising against you, there’s not much they can do. We stay in with the coast of Asia and don’t let them see Lemnos going by.’
Damon said, ‘We could just run for Lemnos.’
‘I don’t want to tangle with this Persian squadron,’ I said. ‘Not yet. We scouted and got away alive. With a capture. Let’s get away.’
And that, for the most part, is what we did. We sailed south and a little east, passing Tenedos on our starboard side, and before darkness fell we were in the out-current of the Dardanelles, and not a ship to be seen.
In the darkness, I turned west and stood out to sea a dozen stadia, mostly to weather the little islands up against the coast of Asia. We passed Troy, and I said a prayer to Herakles my ancestor, and the Ionians aboard grew louder and louder in their complaints, until I sent Styges and Zephyrites down into the rowing frame with a little wine to explain to the oarsmen that we were fine and safe and that any further complaints might get a different reception.
It was a clear night and the wind held, so I watched Asia coast by with the occasional fire or lighted house, and then, when everything to my port side was dark, I turned a little to port and ran south by east. I had Aten in the bow, watching like the sea-hawk he had become; but this was a route I’d sailed since was a boy, and I knew the sound of the sea and the shape of the current coming through the Mytilene channel, and I held my course with confidence, and a little after the sun rose, I saw the red tiled roofs of Mythymna and the fortress high above.
And there on the beach, bless them, were Neoptolymos and Parmenio and their ships, ready for sea.
It felt odd. I’d sailed against an enemy, taken a ship in a stiff fight, and never taken my sword from my scabbard. Other men made the leap to the enemy rowing frame; other men risked their lives against bright iron and ruddy bronze.
It felt odd. It still does.
But with Parmenio and Neoptolymos I had four ships. And four to seven, I was willing to take on my enterprising Persian navarch and his squadron. I won’t say I rubbed my hands with glee; I’ve certainly lost enough fights to fill a few graveyards, and nothing is certain. But Artemis had been with us on her day, and I felt that air, that indefinable sense that we could beat them and capture back the mastery of the northern seas from this interloper.
Once again, Briseis washed my shield on the beach, and her ladies blessed every oar; my new Ionian oarsmen stood in loose ranks be served wine by Ionian ladies, and were too polite to grumble about their hunger.
But in two hours they were eating fresh bread, good tough barley bread, and fried fish and squid, and drinking good wine.
And Briseis was telling me that the siege of Amathus had failed, and that Pausanias had quarrelled with Aristides and Kimon, and that the Allied Fleet, what was left of it, was at Samos.
We were sharing a single kline on a terrace above the sea. We could see past Antissa down the coast, and the last of the sun gilded and rouged everything in a holy light.
‘Where’s your brother?’ I asked, tracing one finger slowly along her marvellous neck and shoulders.
‘Quite possibly at Samos,’ she said.
‘So it’s just us,’ I said.
She rolled over to face me. ‘Just us,’ she agreed.
‘I can cruise in the channel, keeping two ships on the beach,’ I said. ‘Until the fleet comes.’
‘If it comes at all,’ she said. ‘But that’s not what you want to do.’
I shook my head. ‘No,’ I agreed. ‘I want to put to see at dawn with four ships and go looking for them.’
She nodded. ‘Because you trust your luck?’ she asked.
I thought of that odd feeling; that I hadn’t drawn my sword. Did I trust my luck? Luck is a dangerous concept for Greeks; we believe that luck is god-given and usually deserts you in your hour of greatest need. But then, we’re great gamblers, so perhaps we squander it.
‘No luck,’ I said. ‘After Salamis and Mycale, they should fear us. This one doesn’t. I want to beat him because…’
‘Because otherwise the others might lose their fear?’ she asked.
‘The Greek allies are kept together with catch and clay,’ I said. ‘And our reputation on the seas is greater than our number of ships or our successes warrant. So yes. We need that reputation. It does more to protect the coasts of Ionia than twenty triremes.’
She leaned in. ‘That is a brilliant rationalization for doing what you want to do.’ She kissed me lightly, the way married people do, as punctuation. ‘So do it. Just see to it that you win. And don’t die.’
‘I’ll try not to,’ I said.
‘I would not forgive you,’ she said.
I smiled into her eyes. ‘Do you have any thoughts about Thrake? I asked. ‘The insects are terrible, but I saw a good deal of prime farmland.’
‘Are we founding a colony?’ she asked.
‘Maybe,’ I agreed.
She smiled and lay back, watching the sun settle over Lesvos. ‘I might enjoy Thrake,’ she said. ‘When Ionian is free, I suspect we won’t be able to live here.’
That threw a little ice-water on me. ‘Why?’ I asked.
She smiled, but it wasn’t a happy smile. ‘The very excellence that will take us to victory,’ she said, ‘will, in time be poison to our neighbours. Is that not always the way, with Greeks?’
‘We don’t sound very nice,’ I said. I meant it as a jest, but in my heart, I thought of Pausanias, only a year before the greatest man in Greece; of Militades and Themistokles and even Aristides; Miltiades dead, Aristides just back from exile, Themistokles denied even an acclamation for glory.
‘No,’ she said, her head turned away. ‘No. We don’t, do we?’
# # #
In the end, we didn’t sail at dawn. Nestor and Damon and two shipwrights convinced me that the apparently incidental damage our ram had done to the capture deserved a day’s attention and a repair to the damage of the pitch, and the Lemnian oarsmen needed a day off and some food.
‘They’re soft,’ Neoptolymos said with all the arrogance and strength of size and youth.
I shrugged. ‘They got here. They’ve been captured and released and we need to make sure they prefer us to the Persians.’
‘I can replace them all with Chians in four days,’ Neoptolymos said.
I considered a variety of replies, as I was no longer a hot-headed youth. I considered explaining to him that these were men, as he was a man, with pride and dignity. And patriotism. And that they needed a day to pull themselves together.
But what I said was, ‘I don’t have four days.’
And he accepted that.
The Lemnians were, for the most part, excellent men. They were several cuts above Athenian oarsmen–socially I mean, not as oarsmen. Athenian oarsmen view themselves as the very best in the world, and they are probably right; the overweening arrogance of these very lower class men was probably what kept offending aristocrats like Aristides.
The Lemnians were from what might otherwise have been the lower ends of the hoplite class; young, patriotic men who’d decided that it was better to pull an oar for freedom than to stay home. Lemnos is a bit of a special case. Militiades took the island for Athens in the early days of the Ionian revolt; it had remained, to all intents, part of Athens. Miltiades had moved most of his colonists, when the Chersonese fell to the Persians, onto Lemnos.
Regardless, the rapidity of their defeat had shocked them, and I suspect that there were some among them who felt that collapse of self that comes with capture in war; our recapture hadn’t really made them whole.
Others were like angry bears, roaring for revenge. That was no saner, although it made them more reliable in a fight.
I saw that they were fed; meat, and fish, and all the bread and honey they wanted. I ‘strongly encouraged’ the best of my Athenians to go among them and befriend them, and I paid from my dwindling resources for a couple of wine shops to open for business on the beach.
I had my marines in the citadel, three hundred paces above me, able to see all the way up the coast of Asia. I wasn’t particularly worried about being surprised.
The day passed; I men a lot of nice young men who might be dead in a day or two; I contemplated my own many failings, and I lay cuddled with my wife, feeling like an actor who has forgotten his lines.
And the next morning, as the sun rose off to the east, a rim of fire over the blue-black sea, we left the beach and ran north and west, bound for Lemnos.
It was a very frustrating day; Neoptolymos in Amaranth had trouble with his sailing tackle; the wind, so promising early in the day, veered round and came in our faces, forcing us all to row, and Parmenio’s ‘Gad’s Fortune’, the largest and heaviest of our trireme’s, didn’t like the rising seas and held us back.
And I spent the day signalling formation changes, which frustrated the oarsmen and the captains, too. Neoptolymos and Parmenio both had the Ionian mindset that they could take anyone, ship to ship, and had no need for complex manoeuvres. Demetrios had attempted to train that out of the Ionians before Lades, and failed; twenty years later we were still facing it.
And the oarsmen grew frustrated with the stop and go; the rowing soft, and then laying out; cruising speed, ramming speed, check your oars, wait, wait, go like hell.
Too bad. I’d seen more fleet actions than most men, and more ship fights than almost anyone, with the exception of Megakles and Kimon. I wasn’t going to budge, and as it was plain to me that we weren’t making Lemnos in a day, as we’d hoped, I didn’t mind if we messed around in the open sea.
They weren’t bad, but they weren’t great, either. The station keeping was the worst, because we had four very different ships. My Raven was heavier and stiffer than the others, and had fewer oarsmen, despite which I wasn’t the slowest, but the second slowest; and the fastest under sail, and I could make sail in conditions where the others could not.
Gad’s Fortune was our largest ship; the hull newly touched up, brilliant vermillion red. She was tall and heavy, and even a capful of wind on her corner or long, broad flank and she’d make leeway. She was slow, by Athenian standards. She carried more marines than any of the rest of ours, and I’d convinced Parmenio to add some archers, which was not the Ionian way. Archers weren’t that easy to find on the islands; I’m guessing because they had no large animals to hunt.
Amaranth was, as you’ll recall, another Phoenician capture. She was a Tyrian design, so lighter and faster than Gad’s Fortune. She was fast, and easy to handle, but she waterlogged easily. That is, if she was at sea too long, her timbers soaked in the water and she grew increasingly sluggish. She was also too narrow to sail in any conditions except with the wind almost directly astern.
Nike’s Wings was a Lemnian ship, fast and fancy. She, too, was narrow, with no real deck at all, only an amidships catwalk; the older kind of trireme, where is there was any accident to the heavy rope binding the stem and stern, she’d fly apart, because she had no heavy upper deck to brace her. In short, a racing shell with a ram. She was better at almost everything than my other ships, but her limitation was sea-keeping. She was bad in a swell and had none of the little storage areas that the others had. Every Phoenician ship was prepared to carry a little cargo; my own Raven had a hold, some ballast, and a storage compartment in the bow behind the ram. Nike’s Wings had none of those.
This is the huge advantage of Athens or Corinth or Aegina, who can build fifty triremes to the same designs. They all have the same limitations and the same advantages, so that the Navarch can plan his campaign down to the details of supply, based on his own doctrines and his ships. I had four different ships in a fleet of four. We couldn’t all sail well, and we couldn’t all row up-wind well, and station keeping, by which I mean forming a fighting line with the ships almost oar-tip to oar-tip, was brutal.
Well, that was long winded. Let’s just leave it here; we spent the day rowing about the ocean, trying to be better and the most basic manoeuvres. Towards nightfall I ordered the squadron to turn to port and we fetched up on the beaches of the island of Philoctetes, sacred to archers. Our older recruit was devotee and wore the charm, the bow and arrows of Herakles, and he took Ka and Nehmet and the former helots ashore to the shrine and initiated them.
The rest of us had a hasty meal and a surly sleep. We’d landed on the south side of the island and I doubted that our fires could be seen by the enemy, but I put up a hasty tower of four mainmast yards on the headland and manned it all night with marines.
Morning came, warm as true summer, and another wind change, this time from the east and full of rain. Some of Damon’s sailors had rigged a net in the surf and brought us a breakfast of little whitefish, fried in oil; delicious, and a good omen, and we cleared the gravel beaches in good humour and had the wind on our flanks. I might have been able to make sail, but it was a bad point of wind for the rest and Nike’s Wings took water in through her lower oar-ports even with her mast down, while Gad’s Fortune sagged away to windward every stade.
I had Diodoros singing. He had a fine voice, and had desired to be a rhapsode and he knew most of Homer, so we sailed along with a deep bass voice singing to us of wily Odysseus and the bow of Herakles, a story about the waters and beaches around us, and our oarsmen rowed with a will.
The rain came and went, and visibility was variable. I had the boys take turns high above the deck in the main mast nest, but the horizon was close, and even as we heard the seabirds that indicated that we were close to Lemnos, we didn’t see the loom of her mountains.
In my youth, a small island had detonated in a titanic explosion that could be heard for miles. It had happened just off Lemnos, and when the resulting waves had died away, the island was gone. Legend has it that the forges of Hephaestus are on Lemnos, and they certainly produce wonderful swords and some excellent armour as well.
The point is that Lemnos has a smell of sulphur; of activity in the ground, and we could smell it, but the rain and the clouds hid the coast. I kept walking forward, looking through the mist, and hoping to hear the sound of waves on a beach.
After three hours, I finally heard what I sought, and I used my signals to order my ships to follow me, and I turned to starboard and ran west along what I had to suppose was the south coast of Lemnos. I could hear the birds, smell the stink, and sometimes hear breakers, but I still hadn’t seen the coast.
The east wind was dying; I had reason to hope the weather would clear. I’d just turned to Nestor to ask his view when, over the starboard side, I saw a trireme, clear as day. She was perhaps five hundred paces away, rowing serenely along the same course as mine.
I had a moment to think that Parmenio was far off his station, and then I leaned out and looked back. I could just see all three ships behind me.
‘Action stations,’ I snapped. ‘Quiet as you can.’
Rain struck us, and visibility vanished. I couldn’t see a stade. Nehmet was climbing the mainmast and he was almost invisible before he got all the way up.
Aten was standing on the stern bench, waving a red chiton on a spear until he got an answering wave from astern. Then he raised my bronze-faced aspis and made the signal.
I saw the answering flash.
The marines were already in their armour; the oarsmen had their cushions set.
‘Turn to starboard three points,’ I said.